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Letters Blog Letters Blog | Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'


Here we go again, another Friday 13th. I really am fed up with reading what all the doom mongers have to say about the likelihood of disaster on this ‘unlucky’ day. It reminds me of an event a few weeks ago when a weird religious sect that takes the Book of Revelations literally, busily promoted the idea that the world was about to end on 21 September. How disappointed they must have been on 22 September. I just hope that they gave some serious thought to those unfortunate believers who committed suicide in order to avoid the big event, or those that had blown all their savings a few weeks before, as they couldn’t take their savings with them. Such foolish predictions are not only dangerous lies, but very cruel for many decent, trusting people.

What is it about the human psyche that loves the idea of disaster, terror, and fear? Don’t we have enough real events to terrorise us already? Do we really need any more demons than The Trumper, Little Rocket Man, Global Warming, Islamic Terrorism and Harvey Weinstein to successfully chill us to the marrow? We will shortly have another fiesta, nowadays frantically celebrated in Spain, as well as in many parts of the world. This event is, of course, Halloween, which I personally detest. Gone are the days when it involved little more than drawing a few spooky pictures, hollowing out a pumpkin, and making masks with the kids, with a spot of apple bobbing thrown in for good measure. We now have an event that to many is little more than the celebration of evil, an opportunity to drink excess alcohol, as well putting kids in danger. A few years ago, the idea of Halloween, as opposed to the highly religiously significant All Saints Day, was hardly recognised, let alone celebrated in Spain and the Canary Islands. A commercial opportunity for shops to sell more imported rubbish? Yes, most certainly, but is this kind of celebration healthy, let alone desirable? It is a simple case of ‘each to their own’ I guess, but I’m having none of it.

In Spain and the Canary Islands, you won’t find locals drawing their blinds and running away from black cats. It is actually Tuesday the 13th that is considered to be unlucky, since Tuesday is said to be dominated by Ares, the Greek God of War, who gives his name to the Spanish word for Tuesday, which is Martes. The old Spanish proverb proclaims: ‘En martes, ni te cases, ni te embarques, ni de tu casa te apartes’ – or in English – “On Tuesday, don’t get married, embark on a journey, or move away.” There are also a few more Spanish superstitions that the cautious expats should be aware of, including putting a hat on a bed that will bring bad luck. This superstition is believed to have come from a time when people believed that evil spirits lived in people’s hair, which could be transferred from the hair to the hat and then to the bed, leaving unfortunate souls open to ghost attacks during the night.

As a cat lover, one superstition that I am not too keen on in Spain is that cats have only seven and not nine lives as in the UK. Sadly, cats in Spain and the Canary Islands have to be much more careful, since they are two lives short.

I now know never to give a knife as a gift. Spanish tradition states that buying knives or scissors symbolise the cutting of ties and relationships, so if you gift newlyweds with knives, they will break up. That’s a pity, since I had planned to give a set of kitchen knives to a lovely couple as a wedding gift. It will just have to be the toaster after all.

Many fans of amateur dramatics in the UK tell their actor friends to ‘break a leg’, but in Spain it’s a bit different. Instead, you must wish that person ‘mucha mierda’, or ‘lots of shit’. I shudder to think what the origin of this one is, but I do have a very vivid imagination... If anyone knows the origin of this one, please do let me know.

Have you noticed that many homes in Spain and the Canary Islands have cactus on windowsills or placed strategically in their homes? It is believed that spikey green cactus can ward away evil spirits, so a nice prickly cactus might make an appropriate housewarming gift. Always be careful when brushing, because you must never sweep the feet of a single woman. If you do, she will never get married and hate you for ever.

Fancy getting your own back on someone? This is easy, just buy them yellow clothes. After all, yellow represents sulphur and the Devil, and it is sure to bring them lots of bad luck. Getting ready for Christmas and the New Year? Don’t forget to eat twelve grapes in rapid succession on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Spanish people reckon that wearing red underwear also helps to bring them good luck, so I must remember to pick up some red undies when next in Marks and Spencer. By the way, just a tip when eating grapes, please go seedless. I still recall a very unfortunate incident with someone who choked to death on the seventh grape. There really wasn’t too much luck involved for him, but maybe he wasn’t wearing red underwear.

I’ll let readers into a little secret, which may explain a little of my aversion to ‘disaster planning’ and days that are meant to be unlucky. I was born on Friday 13th at around 13.00. Thanks to my mother’s considerable efforts to destroy the myth of ‘Unlucky 13’, I was taught that Friday 13th is my special day when good things happen. With one or two notable exceptions, and I won’t bore you with the details, this has mostly been the case. Friday 13th is always a good day for me when good things usually happen. I guess it is a state of mind.

I adore black cats, I will happily walk under ladders and never throw spilled salt over my left, or is it right, shoulder. I have no time for superstition and the Book of Revelations. Come on, let’s do reality instead. Have a great Halloween!

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

Join me on Facebook: @barrie.mahoney

To find out more about Barrie, his blogs, podcasts and books, go to:

The Stinky Tree

It is fascinating to discover some of the remedies and answers to problems that can be found by looking at the past. If we look carefully, we often find answers to many present-day problems, and how our ancestors dealt with the inconveniences of life. I discovered this recently when looking at a tree on the small island of El Hierro.

A visit to the enchanting island of El Hierro is not complete without a visit to see the Stinkwood or Smelly tree (Ocotea foetus), which is native to the island. The tree is evergreen, a member of the laurel family, and is threatened due to the loss of habitat in the areas where it thrives and, I suspect, its pungent aroma. Yes, it can be smelly, hence the name, because the tree is rich in essentials oils. These oils give off an unpleasant odour to the wood when cut, but don’t let this part of the story put you off. After all, stinky or not, this tree does have an interesting story to tell…

The Stinkwood tree was sacred to the ancient inhabitants of the small Canary Island of El Hierro, the Bimbaches, who called it the Garoe. Legend states that the Garoe assured the life of the Bimbaches, because it provided them with sufficient water to ensure their survival. Remember, this was not a time when the locals could pop into the local shop and buy a large bottle. The Canary Islands are visited by the trade winds and, since water was so scarce, the little water that was available to these ancient islanders were from the clouds that condensed on the branches of the tree. It is said that water that dripped from this tree was led to a hole from which the Bimbaches took their water supply.

The original Garoe tree was destroyed by a storm on the island, but in 1957 a replacement tree was planted in the same location as the original tree. Legend or not, the same principles as deployed by these ancient people are still just as relevant to fulfilling islanders need for water today.

Let us now move to another Canary Island, Fuerteventura, where similar principles for catching water are still used. The Fuerteventura Government has been collecting mist for the last year or two, and this new technology has already collected over 33,000 litres of water. Mist collectors use humidity from the trade winds that blow across Fuerteventura, and extract water from mist and fog to create a sustainable water supply. Meters fitted to the mist collectors show around 6,500 litres of water are collected each month during the trade winds season.

So, how is this done in Fuerteventura without the assistance of the Garoe tree? This simple technology uses mesh placed on vertical structures in high mountain areas that intercept mist and humidity that blows across them, and water droplets fall into storage tanks. These mist collectors use water from sea mist or clouds to support the reforestation of endemic or specific species of plants and trees, which will help plant habitats to recover by providing moisture for the soil and improve the quality of the environment and landscape.

It is both a humbling and fascinating thought that technology and processes used by the ancient people in the Canary Islands are being brought back into use today in an attempt to rectify damage caused to the environment over many centuries.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

Join me on Facebook: @barrie.mahoney

To find out more about Barrie and his books, go to:

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